Americans, especially those under 40, say the word “like,” and we do it a lot. Beyond like’s traditional usefulness as a verb (I like windy days), a simile marker (He ran like the wind), or a synonym for “such as” (Activities like running and bicycling are popular), the word has become a useful hedge (He ran like six or seven miles) and filler (So, like, where are we running to?). And, of extreme interest to many linguists and linguistic anthropologists, it is also commonly used as a quotative. That is, it can be used to introduce a description or demonstration of someone’s speech (including one’s own), as in, I walked up to Randy and he was like, Why are you late? I was like, Because you gave me the wrong time!
The use of the quotative like is nearly ubiquitous among young Americans: based on work by Graham Jones at MIT and Bambi Schieffelin at New York University, we can estimate that about 80 percent of college students use the quotative like in typical face-to-face conversations with other college students. But those who do not use it tend to disdain it. Perhaps they believe it to be a symptom of laziness, or at least carelessness, as though the speaker couldn’t be bothered to convey her actual words to Randy, nor Randy’s to her, and is content to approximate them. Perhaps they simply perceive it to be a bad habit, like chewing too loudly or picking at scabs.
So what’s the deal with the quotative like? Is it just a lazier, slangier way of saying says? Linguists are like, No! The general consensus is that the quotative like encourages a speaker to embody the participants in a conversation. Thus, the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not. Hear yourself say these sentences aloud: I walked up to Randy and he was like, Why are you late? I was like, Because you gave me the wrong time! You have, in addition to relaying the he-says she-says bones of a conversation, probably betrayed some moral indignation. Randy was unreasonable, and you were in the right. It’s possible to do all this with says, of course, but not nearly as naturally.
The quotative like is often followed by filler words like well or dude, as in He was like, Dude, get your act together. Much like a mask or good make-up or the right dialect coaching, these fillers further distinguish the current speaker from the person (or earlier self) being quoted. They give the performance a bit of flair. (And make no mistake: far from indicating laziness, the quotative like can inspire some great performances.)
Which is why treating it so trivially is a shame. As Jones and Schieffelin point out, even in the venerable New Yorker the quotative like is often prefaced by a comma, as though it were a filler: He was, like, Dude, get your act together. This serves to both deny the construction its dramatic power and make its speaker look somewhat incoherent. Not cool.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.